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A Critical Review of Child Custody Evaluation

A Critical Review of Child Custody Evaluation

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A
CRITICAL REVIEW
OF
CHILD
CUSTODY
EVALUATION
REPORTS
James
N.
Bow
and Francella A. Quinnell
This
study examined
52
child custody reports drafted by doctoral-level psychologists
from
across the United Statesto determine (a) the nature, scope, and quality
of
the evaluation
process
as
reflected in report content;
(b)
he degreeto which practice
as
documented
in
eports
is
congruentwith practice
as
describedby survey data, and
(c)
the
man-
ner
in
which evaluation results are communicated o the court.
In
general, the
findings
uggest that evaluation proce-dures identified
in
reports
are
consistent with those described
in
past
survey
research
and
with custody guidelines.Evaluations end to be court ordered, comprehensive,and well written. Ways in which
reports
can
be improved
were
identified.
One of the most controversial areas of forensic psychology
is
child custody practice.Numerous authors have criticized
the
quality
of
evaluationscompleted in this area (Melton,Petrila, Poythress,
&
Slobogin,
1997;
Melton, Weithorn,
&
Slobogin,
1985;
O’Donohue
&
Bradley, 1999; Turkat, 1993). Complaints have included
the
lack of empirical methods, theinappropriate
use
of psychological tests,
the
improper use and interpretation
of
data, and
the
lack of usefulness
to
the court. O’Donohue
&
Bradley (1999) even called for a moratoriumon such evaluations.In
1994,
wo professional organizationspromulgated child custody guidelines
to
promoteproficiency in this area. These guidelines, the then-Association of Family and ConciliationCourts’ (AFCC‘s) “Courts Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluations” andthe American Psychological Association’s
(ApAs)
“Guidelines for Child Custody Evalua-tions in Divorce Proceedings” addressed the purpose
of
the evaluation, preparatory andtraining issues, and procedural steps. Adherence to these guidelines and the quality
of
cus-tody evaluations and reports continue to be areas
of
debate.Ensuring high-quality child custody evaluations and reports is important for a number
of
reasons. First, the focus
of
the evaluation is on the
best
interests of the child (AFCC, 1994;APA, 1994).
As
noted by Woody
(2000),
there is a strong societal need to safeguard thewell-being
of
children; the evaluation should thus fulfill evaluators’ egal duty
to
protect chil-dren’s best interests. Second, the stress
of
divorce often results in anguish
and
tension forfamily members (Hodges, 1991).
This
is particularly true in disputedcontested divorces.
It
isessential, therefore, that the evaluation process minimize the probability of iatrogenic harm(Ackerman
&
Ackerman, 1996), hat is, evaluatorsprecipitating or aggravating njury to theparties because of their attitudes, actions, or comments.
If
the evaluator maintains neutrality,listens to
all
parties, uses the same standard procedures, and handledreports data in a sensi-
tive
manner,
it
is
hoped
this
goal can be attained.
Third,
the conclusions and recommenda-tions made by evaluators significantly mpact families. It
is
imperative for evaluators o con-
Authors’ Note:
The authors wish
to
acknowledge Joyce Chapman and Arlene Richardson or their secretarial assis-tance during this project. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James
N.
Bow, Ph.D.,Director
of
Psychology,Hawthorn Center.
18471
Haggerty Road. Northville,Michigan
48167;
e-mail: bow@state.mi.us.
FAMILY
COURT
EVIEW,
Vol.
0.2,
April
2002
164-176
0
2002
Sage
Publications
164
 
Bow,
Quinnell
I
CRITIQUE
OF
CUSTODY REPORTS
165
sider developmental issues, strengths, and weaknesses of the parents and current divorce/custody research in the evaluation process.
Fourth,
ustody disputes deal with a variety ofemotionally charged issues. Consequently, it is important for evaluators to maintain anobjective stance, to understand transference and countertransference ssues, and to adhere toprofessional practice parameters. Otherwise, they may risk malpractice suits
or
boardethical complaints.
Last,
custody evaluators infrequently
testify
in court (Bow
&
Quinnell,
2001a;
Melton et al.,
1985).
The expert’s report
is
usually taken at face value and
is
not sub-jected to cross-examination, which further supports the need for high-quality professionalwork.A variety of approaches have been used
to
assess the quality of child custody evaluations.For example, a number of these studies have surveyed the practices and procedures of mentalhealth professionals conducting such evaluations (Ackerman
&
Ackerman, 1997; Bow
&
Quinnell, 2001a; Keilin
&
Bloom,
1986;
LaFortune
&
Carpenter, 1998). Findings indicatethat significant improvements
have
occurred over the past 15 years. Evaluations havebecome more comprehensiveand sophisticated, ncorporating data from multiple collectionsources and the application of critical decision-making skills. Evaluators have also becomemore aware of ethical and risk-management issues.Survey research has also focused on the legal community’s beliefs and attitudes aboutchild custody evaluations (Bow
&
Quinnell, 2001b; LaFortune, 1997). Both judges andattorneys preferred court-ordered evaluations and favored psychologists as mental healthexperts in such matters. Objectivity was noted to be paramount in the evaluation process.Both studies indicated a need for improvement in custody reports.
In
particular, BOW ndQuinnell (2001b) found that judges and attorneys from Michigan favored a more child-focused report that addressed statutory best interests of the child criteria and provided rec-ommendations for custody and visitation. Also, timely completion of the evaluatiodreport(e.g., 5 to
6
weeks) was highly desired.These survey studies have some definite limitations in their ability to determine the qual-ity of child custody work. First, survey research relies on retrospectiveestimates, which maynot actually reflect frequency and usage rates of different custody practices
and
procedures.Second, the methods and procedures reported as being used by evaluators may vary greatlyfrom their actual practices and procedures. Third, survey research does not reflect how data
are
integrated and presented in a report format.An actual review of child custody evaluation reports is a more accurate indicator of evalu-ation practices and procedures. However, this type of research is complicated by confidenti-ality issues, willingness of mental health professionals to share their work, and lack ofreadily accessible reports from private practitioners. These factors have deterred neededresearch in this child custody area.
This
study sought to overcome such obstacles and undertook the review of actual custodyevaluation reports. Reports best reflect child custody practices and procedures and allowaccurate assessment
of
how data and findings are presented in a report. Because proceduresused in child custody evaluations vary among mental health professionals, it was decidedthat
this
study would focus only
on
doctoral-level psychologists.
 
166
FAMLY
COURT
REVIEW
METHOD
IDENTIFICATION
OF
PARTICIPANTS
Names of potential participants were obtained from the fol1,owing sources: an Internetsearch, public access referral lists from the American Board of Forensic Psychology and theMichigan Society of Forensic Psychology, Friend of the Court (FOC) nominations, and thefirst author’s knowledge of evaluators through conferences, workshops, and articleshooks.In addition, psychology members of the Internet Child Custody Evaluators’ istserver groupwere contacted. Overall, 265 potential participants were identified.
SELECTION PROCEDURE
Each potential participant was sent a letter explaining the nature and purpose of the studyand describing the specific requirement for participation, that is, submission
of
a typicalchild custody evaluation report, with all identifying information omitted, to the researchers.Prospective participants were also informed that all information would be confidential anddata would be analyzed and reported on a group basis only. Those interested in participatingwere asked to return an enclosed preaddressed stamped postcard and were then sent a packetof materials including cover letter, informational consent form, evaluator’s demographicinformation sheet,
$5
to
cover copying cost, and stamped return envelope. Of the 265 personscontacted,
78
returned the postcard and were sent the packet
of
materials as described above.Approximately
1
month after forwarding the packet, a reminder postcard was sent request-ing return of the completed study documents. Fifty-six individuals returned the requestedinformation; however, only 52 met the study criteria-for example, psychologists perform-ing child custody evaluations. Four individuals were from other disciplines (e.g., socialworker, licensed counselor).
DATA COLLECTION
Data were collected from the demographic nformation sheet and the child custody evalu-ation report returned by study participants. Demographic information provided includedage, gender, primary work state, educational background, years of experience, and child cus-tody experience.
To
objectively evaluate the child custody report,
a
detailed check sheet wasdeveloped to collect relevant data
to
be used
for
analysis, including the format of the reportand areas covered, procedures used in the evaluation process, types of psychological testsused with children and adults, structure of parent-child observations, handling of collateraldata sources, and types of recommendations made.
PARTICIPANT
DEMOGRAPHICS
The average age of the participants was 50.47 years
(SD
=
6.!20),
with a range from
32
to
72.
Males constituted
62%
of the sample. All participants were doctoral-levelpsychologists,with
87%
Ph.D.’s.,
11%
Psy.D.’s., and 2% Ed.D.’s. The vast majority had a major in clinicalpsychology
(71
%),followed by counseling psychology
(15%),
school psychology
(4%),
and
10%
other (e.g., forensic psychology, developmental psychology, and chldfamily psychol-

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